Belfast Briefing: Parties united on need to create jobs in North
There is plenty of talk about economic growth, but not many ideas of how to fund it
Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP: it has declared itself to be a “low-tax party”. Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press
Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs: that sums up what the Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)and Sinn Féin believe is the most important local economic issue when it comes to the 2015 UK general election.
In two days’ time Northern Ireland gets to vote on who should win the 18 local seats in Westminster.
Like politicians the world over, the North’s own particular breed are very good at dishing out pledges that promise much but all too often fail to deliver on substance – and especially when it comes to the economy.
No one in Northern Ireland has been immune to its economic struggles in recent years. High unemployment, a budget crisis, a shrinking public sector and the property crash have left their own scars on most households. So when people go to vote on Thursday, it is a safe bet that their own particular financial circumstances will be high on the agenda – a fact not lost on the 138 candidates standing for election.
That is why all of the main local parties have woken up to the notion that the economy is probably now more important to voters than at any time since the peace process began.
This means that the Alliance Party, the DUP, the SDLP, the UUP and Sinn Féin have actually had to come up with some economic strategies based somewhere in the realm of reality in order to attract voters’ attention.
Jobs – whether their creation or protection – is the one issue on which all of the parties are united and it features prominently in each of their Westminster manifestos.
Unsurprisingly, the North’s ambition to implement a reduced rate of corporation tax is also part of the plans for most parties.
The SDLP for example is keen to “establish, in partnership with the British government, a Scottish-style commission to begin the devolution of further powers which will allow us to take control of additional fiscal levers”.
In addition it is promising to “negotiate a New Economic Accord with Westminster”, and it firmly believes that Northern Ireland “is better off within a united Europe”.
It specifically wants to invest more money in capital infrastructure projects, social housing, increase grade A office space in the North and direct more investment to education in a bid to create the right skills to help support the economy and new investors.
One of its other key campaign issues is that it wants to reduce the local VAT rate to 5 per cent to help boost the tourism and hospitality sectors.
It is not the only party that sees tax cuts as a vote winner: the DUP has declared itself to be a “low-tax party”.
It supports proposals to raise the personal allowance to at least £12,500 by the end of the next parliamentary term and it also wants to freeze and then abolish the television licence.
The DUP is also in favour of abolishing air passenger duty (APD), which it says harms the local business and tourism sectors, and lowering the VAT rate for the hospitality industry.
It also wants to enhance Northern Ireland as an investment location by securing lower electricity costs for businesses.
The party is also campaigning for better transport connections with Britain by air and sea and wants a feasibility study to be carried out on a possible tunnel or enclosed bridge between Larne and Scotland.
While the Alliance Party echoes the DUP, UUP and SDLP when it comes to lower VAT rates for the tourism and hospitality sector and the removal of air passenger duty, it is the only party in the North to voice its support for a “mansion tax” on high-value homes.
It is also the only party to highlight that the cost of division in Northern Ireland is estimated to be in the region of £1 billion per year. It argues that if politicians tackled “division and its costs”,there would be a direct benefit to the local economy.
The Alliance Party believes the “future of the economy will be based on securing high-tech, highly innovative skilled jobs” and it wants both the UK government and the Executive to “invest heavily in the sorts of economy we will need to prosper in the future”.
The UUP would specifically like to see the establishment of a “Northern Ireland-owned bank” and it supports opening up access to finance for local businesses.
It wants to shift the North from “dependency to wealth generation”. To do this it believes the region needs a range of ingredients from a skilled workforce to sufficient office accommodation and fast-track planning.
It also believes VAT should be reformed to support the construction and tourism sectors. The UUP is also the only party in Northern Ireland that opposes reintroducing the 50 per cent top rate of income tax for people earning more than £150,000, while supporting measures to increase personal allowances to £12,500.
It would also like to see the creation of a “Border economic development zone” which it believes would “harmonise” trade on the island and more investment in science, innovation, engineering and new emerging sectors.
The party believes that “integrating” the economies North and South would create benefits for the whole island.
Sinn Féin is also advocating the transfer of the Crown Estate and the devolution of other tax powers and key economic decision-making powers to the Executive. It is also in favour of the creation of a state-owned community bank that would “provide low-cost credit to ordinary people”.
Will these policies be vote winners? Only the polls will tell but there is not one single line in any of the political parties’ manifestos which explains exactly how they would pay for them.